CARY, N.C.–In the 30-year history of USA Baseball’s 18-and-under squad, a single national team has never featured brothers. But Florida pitchers Cole and Carson Sands could make history after strong showings during the first two days of the Tournament of Stars.
Carson, a rising senior lefthander, was one of two players from the Class of 2014 to make last year’s 18U team. He was also on the USA Baseball 16-and-under team heading into his sophomore year. He could practically declare residency in North Carolina, as this is his third straight summer trip to the National Training Complex in the Tar Heel State.
Cole, a rising junior righthander who is on the Dixie roster, burst onto the scene Wednesday after striking out the side in his first inning against Carson’s team, Babe Ruth, including standouts like Monte Harrison. Cole, who is young for his class and will turn 16 next month, sat 90-92 mph in his first inning. He is making a compelling case to follow in his brother’s footsteps as a rare underclassman on Team USA.
The Sands brothers are accustomed to being teammates, playing together in high school for North Florida Christian High in Tallahassee, Fla., as well as travel ball for the Orlando Scorpions. (Cole also plays for Tallahassee-based Next Level Baseball.)
Carson didn’t pitch against Cole on Wednesday, nor was he in in the lineup against his younger brother–which has happened, most notably a few years ago.
“It was a tryout for a travel ball team and he was the hitter,” Cole said. “I struck him out on a changeup. I have the video at my house. I can’t watch that enough.”
It was Carson’s turn on mound Thursday against American Legion. The 17-year-old allowed two runs in two innings with two walks and two strikeouts. His arm was tardy in his delivery, as he missed up and to his arm side on his two walks. ”The first inning was a little rough,” Carson said. “But the second was a lot better. I had better command and I settled in.”
A week after pitching at the Perfect Game National Showcase, where he sat 90-92 mph, Carson’s fastball settled in around 88-90 mph and touched 91. He featured a changeup that has armside fade and is thrown with good arm speed.
“My changeup is my go-to pitch,” Carson said. “If I am not throwing strikes with my fastball, I will live off my changeup. I am in love with that pitch.”
As the older brother, Carson helped teach Cole his changeup, and it’s the younger brother’s favored offspeed offering as well, notable for both its vertical tumble and fade. The Sands brothers both have curveballs as their third-best pitches. Carson throws a curve with 1-to-7 rotation and good depth. Cole’s has more power and slider-like break, with more horizontal movement than vertical tilt, which he’s trying to change.
“My curveball will sometimes slide on me,” Cole said. “I am trying to get more 12-6 action on the pitch.”
The Sands brothers are a formidable duo at the top of the rotation for North Florida Christian High in Tallahassee, Fla. They were a combined 13-3 this season for the Eagles, who were the preseason No. 24 team in Baseball America high school rankings and finished 21-6, losing in the Florida 3-A state semifinals. The lefty-righty combo threw 60 percent of their team’s innings and struck out nearly a third (32 percent) of the hitters they faced.
“We feed off each other when we pitch,” Cole said. “You always have to have some looking out for you and telling you what you are doing wrong when you pitch. He gives me great advice. And he has a tendency to pull off with his front side and I have to tell him to keep that up.”
The Sands brothers are also workout partners off the field. ”I have lived in the weight room the last year,” Carson says. “We are always yelling and screaming at each other in the weight room and trying to get after each other. Cole is attacking attack the weight room too. His velocity is right behind me.”
Carson credits the velocity he has gained over the last year to his stronger body and long toss sessions with his brother. He has gained 15 pounds of muscle and began to fill out his lean, projectable 6-foot-4, 205-pound frame.
“Long toss has been a big part of my velocity increase,” Carson said. “We long toss every other day in the offseason. If it wasn’t for long toss with Cole, I don’t know if my arm strength would be where it is today.”
Both Cole, who is a sturdy 6-foot-2, 198 pounds, and Carson are committed to hometown Florida State, which is about a five-minute drive from their home.
“Everything is competitive but at the end of the day we always have one another’s back,” Cole said. “I probably wouldn’t be where I am today without him.”
Undersized Pitchers Show Big Arms
In day two of the Tournament of Stars action, pitching was once again the story. The second game of the day featured NABF lefthander Justus Sheffield squaring off against righthander Zachary Carter of the USA Stars. NABF won the game 1-0, though neither pitcher figured in the decision.
As the younger brother of Red Sox 13th-rounder Jordan Sheffield, Justus has been on the radar of scouts and college coaches for a while. The 6-foot product of Tullahoma, Tenn., who like his brother is committed to Vanderbilt, lived up to his hype, tossing five shutout innings for NABF and allowing just two hits. His fastball sat in the 86-88 mph range for most of the afternoon, touching 90 on occasion, and his mix offspeed pitches put hitters away. Sheffield showed good feel for a changeup and featured the pitch against both lefthanded and righthanded hitters. His curveball showed good depth and downward action. All three pitches were around the zone and helped him strike out six hitters while walking only two.
Carter, from Pantego Christian Academy in Arlington, Texas, was just as impressive, shutting down the NABF hitters for 3 1/3 hitless innings and striking out five. An undersized righthander at 5-foot-10, 165 pounds, he sat around 87-88 mph, with a few fastballs touching 90, and thrived on his ability to show two offspeed pitches in the zone. He worked predominantly off his changeup and flashed decent command of a curveball that showed sharp break and gave hitters trouble when it was down in the zone. Carter showed good competitiveness and athleticism, with a quick, explosive motion and consistent arm action.
Neither pitched figured in the decision as NABF went on to win the game 1-0.
• Add Bennett Sousa to the list of promising lefthanders at the Tournament of Stars. The athletic, 6-foot-3, 185-pounder from North Palm Beach, Fla., struck out five in three innings. His fastball sat 89-91 mph and hit 92. He can spin a curveball with good depth and shows feel for a changeup. The Virginia commit uses a drop and drive delivery.
• Turner Larkin’s velocity was up a full grade over his appearance at PG National, sitting 92-93 mph and touching 94 early in his outing. The uncommitted righthander from Arlington has natural sink on his fastball with a good body at 6-foot-3, 210 pounds and strength in his lower half. Larkin has easy arm action and gets good extension from his high three-quarters arm slot. His breaking ball showed good shape, and he mixed in a changeup.
• Last year’s prospects hit only one home run during TOS. This year’s group hit four in the first two days alone. Sluggers Kel Johnson and Braxton Davidson were the first, and Matthew Railey joined the club on Thursday by sending a changeup into the bushes beyond the right-field fence. The 5-foot-11, 190-pound Railey lacks the physicality of Johnson and Davidson but has good bat speed and surprising strength. Railey has shown arm strength and is committed to Florida State, just like his high school teammates Cole and Carson Sands.
• Righthander Branden Killiher’s 5-foot-11, 168-pound frame does not suggest that he has plus velocity, but the San Diego commit’s fastball sat 91-93 mph. The Lake Stephens (Wash.) High product throws from a high arm slot and mixed an overhand breaking ball with a changeup. Killiher has a quick arm but some effort in his delivery that caused control problems.
• Righthander Keith Weisenberg of Osceola High in Seminole, Fla., mostly used his fastball/changeup combination to retire the side in order in his lone inning of work. His fastball sat 91-92 mph, touching 93 with some armside run, and he showed feel for a changeup. Weisenberg is athletic and has a loose, easy arm action from a three-quarters slot. The Stanford commit has a projectable frame at 6-foot-4, 192 pounds.